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Ambiguity

Ambiguity
A word, phrase or sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning. The word light, for example, can
mean not very heavy or not very dark. Words like light, note, bear and over are lexically ambiguous. They
induce ambiguity in phrases or sentences in which they occur, such as light suit and The duchess cant bear
children. However, phrases and sentences can be ambiguous even if none of their constituents is. The phrase
porcelain egg container is structurally ambiguous, as is the sentence The police shot the rioters with guns.
Ambiguity can have both a lexical and a structural basis, as with sentences like I left her behind for you and He
saw her duck.
The notion of ambiguity has philosophical applications. For example, identifying an ambiguity can aid in solving a
philosophical problem. Suppose one wonders how two people can have the same idea, say of a unicorn. This can
seem puzzling until one distinguishes idea in the sense of a particular psychological occurrence, a mental
representation, from idea in the sense of an abstract, shareable concept. On the other hand, gratuitous claims of
ambiguity can make for overly simple solutions. Accordingly, the question arises of how genuine ambiguities can
be distinguished from spurious ones. Part of the answer consists in identifying phenomena with which ambiguity
may be confused, such as vagueness, unclarity, inexplicitness and indexicality.

1 Types of ambiguity
Ambiguity is a property of linguistic expressions. A word, phrase or sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one
meaning. Obviously this definition does not say what meanings are or what it is for an expression to have one (or
more than one). For a particular language, this information is provided by a grammar, which systematically pairs
forms with meanings, ambiguous forms with more than one meaning (see Semantics).
There are two types of ambiguity, lexical and structural. Lexical ambiguity is by far the more common. Everyday
examples include nouns like chip, pen and suit, verbs like call, draw and run and adjectives like deep,
dry and hard. There are various tests for lexical ambiguity. One test is having two unrelated antonyms, as with
hard, which has both soft and easy as opposites. Another is the conjunction reduction test. Consider the
sentence, The tailor pressed one suit in his shop and one in the municipal court. Evidence that the word suit
(not to mention press) is ambiguous is provided by the anomaly of the crossed interpretation of the sentence, on
which suit is used to refer to an article of clothing and one to a legal action.
The above examples of ambiguity are each a case of one word with more than one meaning. However, it is not
always clear when we have only one word. The verb desert and the noun dessert, which sound the same but are
spelled differently, count as distinct words (they are homonyms). So do the noun bear and the verb bear, even
though they not only sound the same but are spelled the same. These examples may be clear cases of homonymy,
but what about the noun respect and the verb respect or the preposition over and the adjective over? Are the
members of these pairs homonyms or different forms of the same word? There is no general consensus on how to
draw the line between cases of one ambiguous word and cases of two homonymous words. Perhaps the difference
is ultimately arbitrary.
Sometimes one meaning of a word is derived from another. For example, the cognitive sense of see (to see that
something is so) seems derived from its visual sense. The sense of weigh in He weighed the package is derived
from its sense in The package weighed two pounds. Similarly, the transitive senses of burn, fly and walk are
derived from their intransitive senses. Now it could be argued that in each of these cases the derived sense does not
really qualify as a second meaning of the word but is actually the result of a lexical operation on the underived
sense. This argument is plausible to the extent that the phenomenon is systematic and general, rather than peculiar
to particular words. Lexical semantics has the task of identifying and characterizing such systematic phenomena. It
is also concerned to explain the rich and subtle semantic behaviour of common and highly flexible words like the
verbs do and put and the prepositions at, in and to. Each of these words has uses which are so numerous
yet so closely related that they are often described as polysemous rather than ambiguous.
Structural ambiguity occurs when a phrase or sentence has more than one underlying structure, such as the phrases
Tibetan history teacher, a student of high moral principles and short men and women, and the sentences The

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Ambiguity

girl hit the boy with a book and Visiting relatives can be boring. These ambiguities are said to be structural
because each such phrase can be represented in two structurally different ways, for example [Tibetan history]
teacher and Tibetan [history teacher]. Indeed, the existence of such ambiguities provides strong evidence for a
level of underlying syntactic structure (see Syntax). Consider the structurally ambiguous sentence, The chicken is
ready to eat, which could be used to describe either a hungry chicken or a cooked chicken. It is arguable that the
operative reading depends on whether or not the implicit subject of the infinitive clause to eat is tied
anaphorically to the subject (the chicken) of the main clause.
It is not always clear when we have a case of structural ambiguity. Consider the elliptical sentence, Perot knows a
richer man than Trump. It has two meanings, that Perot knows a man who is richer than Trump and that Perot
knows a man who is richer than any man Trump knows, and is therefore ambiguous. But what about the sentence
John loves his mother and so does Bill? It can be used to say either that John loves Johns mother and Bill loves
Bills mother or that John loves Johns mother and Bill loves Johns mother. But is it really ambiguous? One might
argue that the clause so does Bill is unambiguous and may be read unequivocally as saying in the context that
Bill does the same thing that John does, and although there are two different possibilities for what counts as doing
the same thing, these alternatives are not fixed semantically. Hence the ambiguity is merely apparent and better
described as semantic underdetermination.
Although ambiguity is fundamentally a property of linguistic expressions, people are also said to be ambiguous on
occasion in how they use language. This can occur if, even when their words are unambiguous, their words do not
make what they mean uniquely determinable. Strictly speaking, however, ambiguity is a semantic phenomenon,
involving linguistic meaning rather than speaker meaning (see Meaning and communication). Generally when one
uses ambiguous words or sentences, one does not consciously entertain their unintended meanings, although there
is psycholinguistic evidence that when one hears ambiguous words one momentarily accesses and then rules out
their irrelevant senses. When people use ambiguous language, generally its ambiguity is not intended.
Occasionally, however, ambiguity is deliberate, as with an utterance of Id like to see more of you when intended
to be taken in more than one way in the very same context of utterance.

2 Ambiguity contrasted
It is a platitude that what your words convey depends on what you mean. This suggests that one can mean
different things by what one says, but it says nothing about the variety of ways in which this is possible. Semantic
ambiguity is one such way, but there are others: homonymy (mentioned in 1), vagueness, relativity, indexicality,
nonliterality, indirection and inexplicitness. All these other phenomena illustrate something distinct from
multiplicity of linguistic meaning.
An expression is vague if it admits of borderline cases (see Vagueness). Terms like bald, heavy and old are
obvious examples, and their vagueness is explained by the fact that they apply to items on fuzzy regions of a scale.
Terms that express cluster concepts, like intelligent, athletic and just, are vague because their instances are
determined by the application of several criteria, no one of which is decisive.
Relativity is illustrated by the words heavy and old (these are vague as well). Heavy people are lighter than
nonheavy elephants, and old cats can be younger than some young people. A different sort of relativity occurs with
sentences like Jane is finished and John will be late. Obviously one cannot be finished or late simpliciter but
only finished with something or late for something. This does not show that the words finished and late are
ambiguous (if they were, they would be ambiguous in as many ways as there are things one can be finished with or
things one can be late for), but only that such a sentence is semantically underdeterminate - it must be used to
mean more than what the sentence means.
Indexical terms, like you, here and tomorrow, have fixed meaning but variable reference. For example, the
meaning of the word tomorrow does not change from one day to the next, though of course its reference does
(see Demonstratives and indexicals).
Nonliterality, indirection and inexplicitness are further ways in which what a speaker means is not uniquely
determined by what their words mean (see Speech acts 4). They can give rise to unclarity in communication, as
might happen with utterances of Youre the icing on my cake, I wish you could sing longer and louder, and
Nothing is on television tonight. These are not cases of linguistic ambiguity but can be confused with it because
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speakers are often said to be ambiguous.

3 Philosophical relevance
Philosophical distinctions can be obscured by unnoticed ambiguities. So it is important to identify terms that do
double duty. For example, there is a kind of ambiguity, often described as the act/object or the process/product
ambiguity, exhibited by everyday terms like building, shot and writing. Confusions in philosophy of language
and mind can result from overlooking this ambiguity in terms like inference, statement and thought. Another
common philosophical ambiguity is the type/token distinction. Everyday terms like animal, book and car
apply both to types and to instances (tokens) of those types. The same is true of linguistic terms like sentence,
word and letter and of philosophically important terms like concept, event and mental state (see
Type/token distinction).
Although unnoticed ambiguities can create philosophical problems, ambiguity is philosophically important also
because philosophers often make spurious claims of it. Indeed, the linguist Charles Ruhl (1989) has argued that
certain ostensible ambiguities, including act/object and type/token, are really cases of lexical underdetermination.
Kripke (1977) laments the common stratagem, which he calls the lazy mans approach in philosophy, of
appealing to ambiguity to escape from a philosophical quandary, and Grice (1967) urges philosophers to hone
Modified Occams Razor: senses are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. He illustrates its value by shaving a
sense off the logical connective or, often thought to have both an inclusive and exclusive sense. Grice argues
that, given its inclusive meaning, its exclusive use can be explained entirely on pragmatic grounds (see Implicature
6; Pragmatics 12). Another example, prominent in modern philosophy of language, is the ambiguity alleged to
arise from the distinction between referential and attributive uses of definite descriptions (see Descriptions 5).
Less prominent but not uncommon is the suggestion that pronouns are ambiguous as between their anaphoric and
deictic use. So, for example, it is suggested that a sentence like Oedipus loves his mother has two readings that is, it is ambiguous - because it can be used to mean either that Oedipus loves his own mother or that Oedipus
loves the mother of some contextually specified male. However, this seems to be an insufficient basis for the claim
of ambiguity. After all, being previously mentioned is just another way of being contextually specified.
Accordingly, there is nothing semantically special in this example about the use of his to refer to Oedipus.
Claims of structural ambiguity can also be controversial. Of particular importance are claims of scope ambiguity,
which are commonly made but rarely defended (see Scope). A sentence like Everybody loves somebody is said
to exhibit a scope ambiguity because it can be used to mean either that for each person, there is somebody that that
person loves or (however unlikely) that there is somebody that everybody loves. These uses may be represented,
respectively, by the logical formulas (8x)(9y)(Lxy) and (9y)(8x)(Lxy). It is generally assumed that,
because different logical formulas are needed to represent the different ways in which an utterance of such a
sentence can be taken, the sentence itself has two distinct logical forms (see Logical form). Sustaining this claim of
ambiguity requires identifying a level of linguistic description at which the sentence can be assigned two distinct
structures. Some grammarians have posited a level of LF, corresponding to what philosophers call logical form, at
which relative scope of quantified noun phrases may be represented. However, LF of this kind does not explain
scope ambiguities that philosophers attribute to sentences containing modal operators and psychological verbs,
such as The next president might be a woman and Ralph wants a sloop. An utterance of such a sentence can be
taken in either of two ways, but it is arguable that the sentence is not ambiguous but merely semantically
underdeterminate with respect to its two alleged readings.
Notwithstanding the frequency in philosophy of unwarranted and often arbitrary claims of ambiguity, it cannot be
denied that some terms really are ambiguous. The nouns bank and suit are clear examples and so are the verbs
bank and file. Philosophers sometimes lament the prevalence of ambiguity in natural languages and yearn for
an ideal language in which it is absent. But ambiguity is a fact of linguistic life. Despite the potentially endless
supply of words, many words do double duty or more. And despite the unlimited number of sentences, many have
several meanings and their utterance must be disambiguated in the light of the speakers likely intentions.
See also: Language, philosophy of; Semantics
KENT BACH

References and further reading


Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Version 1.0, London and New York: Routledge (1998)

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Atlas, J.D. (1989) Philosophy Without Ambiguity: A Logico-Linguistic Essay, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(Examines ambiguity tests and questions certain philosophical appeals to ambiguity.)
Bach, K. (1994) Conversational Impliciture, Mind and Language 9: 124-62. (Identifies ways, distinct from those
identified by Grice, in which linguistic meaning can underdetermine speaker meaning and, in particular,
contrasts semantic underdetermination with ambiguity.)
Cruse, D.A. (1986) Lexical Semantics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 3 discusses linguistic
features of ambiguity and examines tests for it.)
Grice, H.P. (1967) Logic and Conversation, Studies in the Way of Words, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1989.(Chapter 2 of this collection explains how multiple uses of an expression can often be explained
without appealing to ambiguity.)
Kripke, S.A. (1977) Speakers Reference and Semantic Reference, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 2: 255-76.(A
case study, focusing on the distinction between referential and attributive uses of definite descriptions, in how
to expose a gratuitous philosophical claim of ambiguity.)
May, R. (1985) Logical Form: Its Structure and Derivation, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.(Investigates the
hypothesis within generative grammar that there is a level of representation, Logical Form.)
Ruhl, C. (1989) On Monosemy: A Study in Linguistic Semantics, Albany, NY: State University of New York
Press.(Argues for the presumption that a word has a single, though highly abstract, meaning rather than the
multiplicity of meanings commonly attributed, as by the list of definitions in its dictionary entry.)
Zwicky, A. and Sadock, J. (1975) Ambiguity Tests and How to Fail Them, in J. Kimball (ed.) Syntax and
Semantics, vol. 4, New York: Academic Press.(Presents and assesses various linguistic tests of ambiguity.)

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